China's state-run propaganda machine appears to be working overtime to flood Twitter searches with porn and escort ads, whenever anyone searches for the name of a Chinese city where protests might be occurring.
The inevitable has been happening in China over the last week, as a frustrated and fed up populace is finally pushing back after two long years of strict nationwide lockdowns and an unsustainable "zero COVID" policy. Protests erupted last week and over the weekend in multiple locales, including at the FoxConn factory where Apple makes many of its iPhones, and in the far-west city of Urumqi where 10 people died in a fire on Thursday and many suspected that COVID-related barricades and other measures had hampered the fire-rescue effort.
But in major cities, where Western social media apps like Twitter and Telegram are officially banned, people still try to use the apps using VPNs (virtual private networks), and they are useful in organizing protests. As TechCrunch reports, the Chinese government appears to making efforts to hamper any organizing by flooding Twitter feeds with bot-promoted spam ads for escorts and porn content. Such content comes up when one does searches for city names using Chinese characters.
China-focused data analyst @AirMovingDevice has been tracking the "significant" uptick of this spam, and tweeting about it.
"Search for Beijing/Shanghai/other cities in Chinese on Twitter and you'll mostly see ads for escorts/porn/gambling, drowning out legitimate search results," the analyst writes.
He notes that the "vast majority," or over 95% of search results that come up when you type in 北京 (Beijing) or 上海 (Shanghai) are this spam content. And one can see, just refreshing their feed after one of these searches, how any actual protest-related content gets shoved down and drowned out by the spam within minutes.
This is also true when I search for 上海 (Shanghai).— Air-Moving Device (@AirMovingDevice) November 28, 2022
Note that these are just a small sample of the search results -- go and search 北京/上海 and you'll see new spam tweets come up every few seconds. So the number of spam accounts is way larger than a few hundred. pic.twitter.com/FhtX6N2mZV
The Washington Post picked up on this Chinese spam wave over the weekend, and they got a rare quote out of Twitter HQ — now that the company's communications department was reportedly all laid off in recent weeks. Well, not a direct quote, but a "current employee" told an "outside researcher" that the company is "aware" of the Chinese spam problem and is working to resolve it.
"It is not the first time that suspected government-connected accounts have used the technique, according to a recently departed Twitter employee," the Post reports. "But in the past, it was used to discredit a single account or a small group by naming them in the escort ads."
That employee further said that "This is a known problem that our team was dealing with manually, aside from automations we put in place."
Musk of course has been griping about bots on Twitter for much of this year, as he first offered, then rescinded his offer to buy the company, then had his hand forced by a legal proceeding. But with layoffs on the Trust & Safety team, and the resignation of the department's leader, Yoel Roth, two weeks ago, it's fair to wonder how great a job Twitter can do in the face of a state-sponsored campaign like this. It's not clear if any employees remain who were dedicated to combatting foreign influence operations like this — with the Post reporting last week that "Musk is looking to automate much of the Trust and Safety team’s work to police content — eliminating some of the nuance from complicated decisions for a cheaper approach."
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that the Chinese government appears to be successful so far in tamping down protests before they really take shape. Online calls for gatherings at People’s Square in Shanghai and a subway stop in northwest Beijing on Sunday evening were reportedly met with heavy police presence, and few protesters.
Still, protests among student activists and others are happening all over, the energy of protest abounds even on state-censored social media. As the Times reports, many are using irony to evade censors — employing positive words like "good" and "correct" in cryptic posts, knowing that censors scrub negative posts more than positive ones. And they are holding up a math equation by Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann, whose name in Chinese characters is a homonym for "free man."
And if you're wondering about all the blank sheets of paper — photos of protesters holding up these pieces of paper are among the things disappearing from Twitter — they're subtle symbols of mourning, with white being a color of mourning in China, as well as symbolic gestures expressing the voicelessness of the masses.
Top image: Protesters hold white signs in protest of the Chinese Government on November 28, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. Urumqi officials said 10 people were killed in a fire in a high-rise apartment building on Thursday. Residents and neighbours said that the building was under lockdown due to China's tough zero-covid approach which has led to sporadic lockdowns and disruption as other countries declare the pandemic at an end. Protests have been sparked by this incident after many others where public anger has risen, and the protests are spreading to many cities, including large ones like Shanghai. (Photo by Tamati Smith/Getty Images)